If she slept in the heat long enough, maybe she could melt away the baby. If there was a baby.

Published August 10, 2001 1:31AM (EDT)

Elvia sat on the makeshift bed she'd set up under the cottonwoods, braiding her hair tightly to keep it off her neck, to piss off her father and his girlfriend. She would sleep out here in the yard, against the chainlink fence and cottonwood trunks which butted up against the desert. If she slept long enough, sweat pouring from her skin, August heat coursing through her veins, maybe she could melt away the baby.

If there was a baby. She was dizzy, her head ached, she tasted oil at the back of her throat. But she felt nothing in her belly. She wouldn't look down. She wouldn't even touch her skin, by the navel, because what if there was a baby, and it felt her fingertips? Thought she loved it?

She didn't. Because there wasn't anything to love. She was dizzy because it was 110 today in Tourmaline, and she'd been washing clothes in the bathtub. Her father's girlfriend Callie said, "We can't walk to the laundrymat in this heat and anyhow we ain't got the money." As Elvia hung them outside, the t-shirts were already drying, stiff as flat people.

She had seen a pregnancy test in the medicine cabinet. Callie must have used the other one. Elvia wasn't going to pee on a stick. There was no baby. She wasn't going to have a baby and then leave it someday, like her own mother had left her, in the light of a windshield with only the sound of mothwings against the glass.

She remembered strange fragments from when she must have been about three: bowls of red pomegranate seeds, flickering candles, the crescent grin of white at her mother's brown heels.

Useless things. She couldn't even imagine a mother. She wasn't going to be a mother when she couldn't even make one up for herself.

Her father had always refused to tell her anything.

"Why talk about somebody when she's gone? Huh, Ellie?"

Her father never called her Elvia. Never.

"You said she wasn't regular Mexican. She didn't even speak Spanish. She talked some kind of Indian words."

Her father had gotten mad. "And you're not a regular kid. She's a gone Indian, okay? That kind. I'm a right-here dad. Most kids don't get that. You're lucky."

She leaned against the chainlink fence, guessing that she was lucky compared to most kids in the desert. Her father brought home food, he had never hit or even touched her, and he hadn't disappeared.

My mother disappeared. She left me at a church. Like some old Bible story about a baby wrapped in a blanket and stuck in a basket and headed down a river. Except I was in a Nova with no license plates in a parking lot. I remember one of the foster ladies telling somebody on the phone.

She tied her braids with leather shoelaces. Bracelets of gold light from the cottonwood leaves fell on her arms. Her father hated the braids.

"You're not Mexican," he said, over and over. "You're not Indian. You're American. Wear your hair like everybody else at school."

"Shave it off?" Elvia had offered. "All the guys shave theirs. Whatever they are."

Callie hated the braids, too. "I could curl all that hair for you, make you look gorgeous," she said. "But you want to pretend you're a cross between a squaw and a boy."

Elvia always shrugged. She liked looking strange, like someone no one would want and no one would want to mess with. Every time her father got into trouble with someone, at a bar or at a job or at a store, and they moved to a new place in the desert -- Indio, Cabazon, Palm Springs, and now Tourmaline -- she had to start a new high school.

A girl would say, "You look Hawaiian." Elvia would shrug. Another girl would sneer, "I hate when girls get green contacts that don't even go with their skin."

Elvia would fold her arms and glare. "Try pullin these out then."

Her father's eyes. Her mother's skin. She felt dizzy again. She wondered if she had her mother's heart. A heart that would let her leave a baby.

She wasn't huge. A quiltlike layer of soft fat surrounded her ribs and hips, that was all. She wore baggy jeans and big t-shirts, like always. She and her father had always gone to the Army surplus for clothes. She stared out into the desert trembling white with afternoon heat. Michael had braided her hair. He was a Cahuilla Indian. She had met him at the high school in Cabazon, but she'd spent hours with him in an arroyo outside Tourmaline. He'd built a plywood shelter with a car windshield for a window. Months ago, when darkness had turned the shattered glass into sparkling silver webs, when they'd drunk vodka and juice, she had fallen asleep with his chest pressed like a bony shield against hers.

Then he disappeared from school, from the shelter, from the desert. People said he had a job building windmills in the pass, he had stolen a car, he had gotten casino money, he had vaporized himself.

She closed her eyes, sweating, melting, hoping the cells inside her were melting, too.

"It's just a blob," a girl whispered to another in a school bathroom. "It's just cells. Not a person. So when you get rid of it, it's no big deal."

"Nu-uh," the other girl said, fiercely. "It sucks its thumb inside you. For reals."

Elvia didn't know how to get rid of it. She had no money. She didn't want to imagine what a doctor would do. Could you smoke something, drink something, that would dissolve it, if it was only a tiny blob? She wouldn't look down.

She squinted at the small brown-stucco house her father had rented this time. The place had been silent since morning. Elvia knew Callie was winding down. She hadn't slept for three days, and she'd probably given her son Jeff a tablespoonful of sweet orange Benadryl to knock him out before she dropped into her own coma.

Did Callie dream, after she'd smoked the white pellets turned to embers, after she stayed awake so long and then collapsed into unconsciousness? Elvia usually slept against Jeff's damp back, on their mattress. She wondered if her father dreamed, maybe of her mother's long black hair so different from Callie's straw-pale strands.

Maybe speed burned up all their dreams when it fried the edges of their brains. She'd seen kids smoking speed in the high school parking lot. She recognized the powdery grains Callie palmed from Dually, who came to the house in his huge black truck, with two sets of tires rumbling through the sand.

When her father came home from work, he and Callie sat outside in the truck cab, pulling in long breaths, the chalky embers in the glass pipe glowing red as night-animal eyes. They stayed awake for days, breaths hot as eucalyptus. Her father took his clouds of smoke and drove a truck, hauling concrete pipe for new golf courses in Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage. He came home with overtime money, fingers coated with cement dust and lips gray as ash.

Callie took her clouds and whirled around the tiny stucco box, exchanging piles of clean and dirty clothes that lined the walls like the only support for the fingerprinted plaster. Callie had moved in six months ago, and Jeff's hands could reach higher now on the paint and doors, leaving tracks like snails. Callie's hands were red and dry as tiny beached starfish, scrubbing the stove with a toothbrush and then spilling coffee, brushing off the baby-boy fingers in downward sweeps like she felt ants on her legs. He followed her everywhere, calling, "Maa! Maa!"

Elvia heard him now. She felt sweat trickling down her neck, and she followed the hot chainlink toward the house.

He was in the doorway, calling, "Maa! Kips! Kips! Doggie!" She knew he wanted potato chips in a bowl, and he wanted his mother to find his stuffed Dalmatian. Elvia watched Callie do whatever Jeff yelled that first day, after she'd breathed in sharpened Dually-delivered smoke. Then she twisted and swerved away more each hour until now she was screaming at him. "One minute, okay? Leave me alone so I can pretend I have a life for one goddamn second? One!"

That's why I'm not doing this, Elvia thought, seeing Jeff's mouth open, his tiny teeth. Because I like him. I don't want to hate a baby. For making me crazy.

"I'm right here, Callie," she said, crossing into the shade of the eaves.

"You sleeping outside again?" Callie paused near the wall, thin as blue graffiti in her demin shorts and shirt. Her skin was pale and shiny as wax with layers of sweat built up on her forehead, her cheeks scored with purple marks. Speed bumps. "Shoot," Callie said absently, staring at the pale asphalt road that shimmered in the heat. "I was in Blythe two years, and I'm still not used to days like today. Gotta be 113."

"Yeah," Elvia said. Jeff butted his head against Callie's thighs, his cries high as a mockingbird. He was hungry and Callie was coming down hard.

"Ellie? Keep him outside for a minute, sweetie, so I can hear myself think? One minute, so I can call a friend?" Callie's blond hair was thin as string on the knobs of her shoulders. Elvia took Jeff's soft elbow and made a detour inside for Honeycomb.

With the cereal in a margarine tub, she sat with Jeff in the narrow corridor of shade along the east wall. He trickled dirt through his damp fingers. Elvia leaned against the stucco and felt tiny bumps of fire through her shirt. She touched Jeff's back, covered with a heat rash like a mist of spray paint.

She couldn't remember her mother's fingers. She remembered the clicking nestle of dry beans in a bowl, dropping from her mother's hands. She remembered riding on her mother's hip, holding a long braid, smelling cinnamon.

Jeff made the trilling sound at the back of his throat, the constant noise that drove Callie crazy. He was almost two. Elvia touched Jeff's plump foot with toes like pale moth cocoons nestled in a row. She thought, What did I do, when I was little like this, to make her leave me?

Jeff didn't look up from the dirt mixed like brown sugar on his Honeycomb. I have her hair. Her skin. Her insides. I'm not having this baby and leaving it when it remembers riding around on my hip, holding my braid. What did I do? Did I make a lot of noise? Did I follow her around? I drove her crazy.

Inside, Callie talked on the phone, her nervous fingers offering Jeff the Dalmatian. "Swear to God," Callie said into the receiver.

Elvia stumbled back to the bed under the cottonwoods. A veil of pain dropped over her forehead. What do they do -- drain some of your brain? They eat your brain. There is no baby. He didn't -- it was on my legs. My hip. That blanket.

He said he didn't want a baby. He was kind of drunk. He fell asleep.

No one said it only took a few minutes. That it hurt. That you could barely tell what the hell was going on.

A mother was supposed to tell you. She was supposed to give you something to drink in a teacup with flowers, even if it wasn't coffee like the commercials, and then she'd tell you about feminine protection and also, by the way, this is what happens with a guy.

Not the sex ed classes at school, where you couldn't act interested or pay attention with everybody laughing and joking and sleeping. You were supposed to know already. You were supposed to put on nail polish, real bored, like other girls who knew everything. Who had mothers.

You couldn't ask a father, she thought angrily, sleepily, the sun a red frisbee hanging over the mountains. You couldn't ask a father anything.

She woke up when she heard his truck pull into the yard. Callie was saying, "Don't you love me? I'm windin down, and Dually ain't shown up. Come on, Larry, you're the best at makin em." Her rubber thongs brushed ceaselessly over the sand.

"Ellie's sleepin again?" Her father lit a cigarette. Elvia heard the hiss of the match.

"I guess." Callie'd probably mistaken the heaps of clothing on the mattress for her. "She's actin all grown. You're liable to see boys pretty soon."

"She's barely fifteen."

"Hell if that ain't grown," Callie laughed. "Why you raisin her anyway? For reals?"

Elvia felt the chainlink cooler now against her arms. She stared at the dim blue roots inside her wrist. Her father said, "I didn't want her in a foster home. Didn't want fuckup people messin with my kid. My only kid." He always said that.

"That's love, huh?" Callie's voice was softer now. Elvia closed her eyes to hear. "When I first met you, and I seen this Indian-lookin kid, I thought no way that's his daughter. I thought you musta took her or bought her." Callie was quiet for a minute. "But after awhile, I knew you weren't lyin. She had to be your kid cause you didn't pay no attention to her. If you'da stole her or bought her, you'd be watchin like a hawk. Touchin her arm, messin with her hair." Callie laughed low. "Ain't that somethin."

"Hey," her father said, the word hard as a shovel. "Like you're a fuckin expert."

"Not me," Callie said, just as hard. "I'm wound down, and Dually's either busted or packed up. This girl Lee, she's cookin her own." The screen door slammed, and then a bag of something tinkled like bells. "Lee said if you do these up for her, she'll take care of us."

Elvia moved carefully off the cot, down the dark tunnel of cottonwood trunks toward the side of the house. "Damn, Callie," her father said. "I worked all day. I'm fuckin tired."

"Don't you love me?" Elvia heard Callie's whisper again, exactly the same, like a CD.

"Damn." Her father picked up his toolbox and clanked toward the metal shed. Elvia slipped behind the spindly mesquite bushes that grew near the chainlink, where traces of water dripped. She heard Jeff's tiny palms slapping the door now, Jeff calling, "Maa! Maa!" He couldn't reach the doorknob yet.

She could see her father's shape outside the shed. Flames sprayed like purple tongue from his hand. Car air fresheners spilled from the bag like clear macaroni, the cardboard labels strewn on the sand. Pine. Vanilla. Baby powder.

Her father was intent on the acetylene torch. He lifted a tube, dipping it to the flame once, twice, the glass like a drunk moth. Then he pulled it to his lips, and the glass expanded into a golden bubble. He drew it through the cooled night air like he was the school band director.

The glass bulbs were perfect pipes for speed. The flames licked out under her father's thumb. How could she explain a phantom baby, or a real one, to her father, bent over sparkling bubbles and broken glass?

She slid toward the house and into her bedroom. Callie came in, stared at her rumpled clothes, eyes hot as the blue torch flame, fingers red on Jeff's legs when she changed his diaper.

She must have slept, and woke to her father crouched beside the mattress. "I work hard, Ellie. I make sure we got walls and AC. But Callie says you been sleepin outside like a wino."

She glanced at his boots, covered with ocher dust. "How come you never tell me where she went?"

He looked surprised. His goatee was blond and stiff as a paintbrush on his chin. "She probably went back to Mexico. She never liked it here. But I don't know. Why talk about the past when it's over?"

"We say that same shit in history class, but nobody listens."

"Watch your mouth, Ellie."

"Why didn't she take me, then?" She nearly shouted it.

"How the hell do I know? I was in Wyoming workin a gas pipeline. I came back and the apartment was empty. I found you in foster care. You know all I know."

She looked at his green eyes, pale as drying foxtails in the fields.

"I'm not goin anywhere," he murmured, standing up.

What if I am? she thought. Like the hospital. To have a baby -- a brown Indian and Mexican and you baby. With green eyes. You don't know all I know. You don't know me at all.

By Susan Straight

Susan Straight is the author of "A Million Nightingales," "Take One Candle Light a Room," and "Between Heaven and Here."

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